Movie review: The Founder
The American Dream comes in a convenient package that’s ready to eat as John Lee Hancock finds the beef in The McDonald’s Empire
Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Running time: 115 minutes
By Katherine Monk
What is a hamburger but an edible piece of the American Dream? Covered in cheese and dressed in ketchup, it’s for the people, and of the people. It may be a little light on the substance side, and a little heavy on fat. But it sure does taste good. All that greasy money sliding around on the griddle of destiny. All that grain-fed optimism dusted with a hint of salt. It’s undeniably delicious; manna for the masses with a drive-thru window.
It stops the hunger. It fills the hole. Ah. The mighty meat patty. It occupies a sacred place between two secular buns, and as head of the McDonald’s Corporation, Ray Kroc was the high priest of the hamburger church and the first prophet of fast-food.
We think we know his story because just about every human on Earth has cast his or her eyes on the golden arches and felt a slight tingle in the salivary glands. Right there, at the bottom of the mouth, where the anticipation of that first french fry builds into a frothy frenzy. Even if we don’t eat there, we’ve been programmed by the McDonald’s menu because McDonald’s is part of the global landscape.
We know Ray Kroc is the man responsible for this revolution, but how did it all happen, and at what cost?
Indeed, the story of “The McDonald’s Empire” is a morality tale sandwiched between two well-toasted buns. It’s the story of a huckster’s last chance at realizing the American Dream — a ground up Willy Loman of a meat patty — sitting in the middle of two starchy storylines, each aimed at showcasing the full flavour of what’s lurking inside.
So meet Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the conquering capitalist hero emblematic of the American Way. Then take a look at Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the McDonald brothers, two guys who used their wits and ingenuity to come up with a winning restaurant formula and ‘the speedy system’ that gave birth to ‘fast food.’
The McDonalds were good men. They had a great idea and a solid business. But they didn’t put profits over people. They are one side of the moral starch. The bottom of the grease-stained bun is Laura Dern as Ethel Kroc, the loyal wife who helped Ray climb the ladder, only to be be left behind and disenfranchised.
It’s an easy-to-assemble formula: a Hollywood plot that is not only easily digestible, it’s ultimately familiar to moviegoers as the Faustian gristle of modern narrative.
The Founder opens with Kroc lugging milkshake mixers across post-war America in a beat-up sedan. He’s one of a million travelling salesman hawking merchandize from Bloomington to San Bernadino on Route 66, and his promise of opportunity seems stalled on the side of the road. Until everything changes.
Our meat patty of a man meets a fork in the path of personal progress: Should he be moral and transparent, or should he deceive his partners in pursuit of personal wealth?
We know how this story ends. We know Kroc rose to the top of the fast-food industry as the man behind McDonald’s. We know McDonald’s is worth over $7 billion US.
The special sauce in this rather formulaic biopic is John Lee Hancock’s (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) ability to make us taste the meat of the drama. Specifically, what’s getting lost along the way as Kroc abandons the two McDonald brothers to make it rich.
He crafts what could have been a two-hour ad for McDonald’s into a neatly wrapped metaphor on current politics that feels hot off the slide. Keaton taps sympathy by showing humanity, but Hancock dips his nib into a deeper well and uses Kroc to take us to the mirror, and take a long look at our the hierarchy of values our hamburger culture propagates.
Kroc lies, cheats and steals. But he’s rich. Wealth confers certain traits that our society holds in high value. Kroc is the man who looks in the camera and says “I want to win!.” He tells us what we want to hear.
He stands at the pulpit of pop culture and chants: “Crosses, flags, arches… McDonald’s can be the new American church…. and it can be open seven days a week.”
More importantly, he has what we want — and what we think we, too, deserve.
It’s no accident that Hancock literally places Kroc in the looking glass for the final scene. The viewer watches Kroc rehearse a speech affirming his own mythology, about McDonald’s as the American Dream realized, for then-governor Ronald Reagan.
It’s all satisfying and it’s what you expect, but there’s no doubt Hancock’s dissection of the fast-food nation also leaves you feeling that somewhere deep in your gut, something’s not quite right.
THE EX-PRESS, January 20, 2017